Open or shut, restaurants took on losses in the flood

Business Report

Back in March, Baton Rouge-based sports bar chain Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar opened its newest location in the Juban Crossing retail development off Interstate 12, just east of Denham Springs. Six months later, the freestanding restaurant took on seven feet of water during the flooding, causing the restaurant to shut down just three weeks before the start of the lucrative LSU football season.

Moreover, 115 Walk-On’s employees are now out of work, prompting management to establish an online crowdfunding effort with a $50,000 goal. Money raised will help support unemployed staff as the restaurant rebuilds, according to the site. On Aug. 30, Walk-On’s owners announced the restaurant will reopen on Sept. 1, about three weeks after being flooded.

The food and beverage sector, like every other part of the regional economy, is feeling the long arm of the Louisiana flood. Elsewhere in hard hit areas—especially Livingston Parish—restaurants are similarly shuttered with only a few chain restaurants opening, and even then with limited menus. But even restaurants that escaped physical harm throughout the greater Baton Rouge area are grappling with other issues, including unpredictable sales and a staffing shortage as employees take time off to clean up their flooded residences or those of friends and family members.

“We’re still trying to figure out the extent of the impact on the restaurant industry,” says Jeremy Langlois, corporate chef of Ruffino’s Restaurant and president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. “It’s still really early, but we’re trying to get a sense of numbers.”

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber estimates nearly 12,000 businesses—which employ roughly 35% of the entire Capital Region workforce—are located in flood-affected areas. Among the sectors hardest hit were retail, construction, health care, manufacturing, and food and drink services, according to BRAC.

While he has no hard data, Langlois says he believes most restaurants in the city of Baton Rouge were back up and running about a week after the floodwaters subsided. Many, including Ruffino’s, were dark for a couple of days during the flood because of interstate and surface street closures. Those able to stay open experienced a week of extreme surges and lags in sales.

Rice & Roux on O’Neal Lane near Interstate 12 was one of the few restaurants in that area that did not experience flooding. Despite multiple street closures, partner Dustin Felton made his way to the restaurant on Monday, Aug. 15.

“We didn’t have customers, but we had power and we didn’t flood,” he say. “I just started cooking jambalaya and taking it out to people.”

Felton officially reopened the restaurant on Aug. 16, about the same time homeowners and volunteers were returning to gut homes. One-third of his 18-member staff was unable to come to work and sales were double their normal pace, he says.

“We got hammered, and that continued up to Saturday of that week. We were cooking nonstop and hanging on by the skin of our teeth,” says Felton. “We would open with 1,000 servings of jambalaya, and by noon, we’d be out. The big problem was that people were, of course, out trying to help and they’d come by for mass orders at the last minute.”

Similarly, Ruffino’s has faced a staffing shortage. The restaurant closed for two days during the flooding due to interstate and street closures. It resumed normal hours on Aug. 16, but with a skeleton crew because about 20% of staff members were impacted, including the head catering chef, says Langlois.

“The biggest challenge right now for most Baton Rouge restaurants is not damage but the overwhelming number of staff that the flood affected,” says Langlois. “Everyone is limping along.”

In the heart of Baton Rouge, Mestizo Louisiana Mexican Restaurant on Acadian Thruway sustained some flooding but bounced back fast. Still, the restaurant’s normally robust lunch business has cooled because patrons’ normal patterns have been interrupted, says owner Jim Urdiales.

“We were able to open back on Saturday (Aug. 13), but there has been no lunch business anywhere because everyone is out helping others,” Urdiales says. “Monday and Tuesday (Aug. 15 and 16) were terribly slow, but starting Wednesday (Aug. 17) we have been doing great numbers only for dinner with a tremendous uptick in to-go orders, especially through (restaurant delivery app) Waitr.”

Both locations of Bistro Byronz were spared from damage and reopened quickly, running catering specials like pans of pasta and boxed lunches that patrons have picked up to take to work sites. Like Mestizo, Bistro Byronz also saw a surge in delivery service orders through Waitr and Take-Out Express, says partner Emelie Kantrow Alton.

As the flood aftermath continues to unfold, restaurants could also experience a downturn in sales due to the enormous financial hit experienced by flood victims, says Urdiales.

“I feel for the restaurants in Denham Springs because even if they are able to reopen in three months their customers will not be ready,” he says. “Every restaurant relies on their immediate five-mile radius for support, and I don’t know how a full-service restaurant can open without the volume to support the business.”

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